Bouquet of Bard wire

Helena Kaut-Howson doesn't go in for traditional tourist-pleasers. Her latest production, 'All's Well That Ends Well', for the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, is no exception. It is set in a contemporary war zone.
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The Independent Culture
Imagine that you lived in an enchanted dell. Celestial music plays in the trees. Mischievous but benign spirits frolic. Life is sweet and straightforward. Then one morning you awake to discover that the fairies at the bottom of the garden have been joined by a military jeep, hand grenades, thundering explosions and the shell-shocked inhabitants of a war zone resembling the former Yugoslavia. How would that make you feel?

The answer is: a little bit like the staff of the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, faced with Helena Kaut-Howson's new production of All's Well That Ends Well. It's perhaps too easy to mock London's premiere al fresco theatre for being the home of "heritage Shakespeare": that's to say, decorous but unchallenging productions of the Bard's best-known works. To his credit, Ian Talbot, the company's artistic director, has made a point of introducing Shakespeare's tragedies into the repertory during his 10-year tenure. He has employed thinking actors, such as Judi Dench and Brian Cox, to direct. Nevertheless, the Open Air has never quite shaken off its image of being middlebrow and tourist-oriented. "We don't do A Midsummer Night's Dream every year," protests Talbot, who this year is playing Bottom in the Dream for the eighth time.

Against this background, the appearance of Kaut-Howson is remarkable. A distinctly leftfield artist, who cheerfully calls herself a "foreigner", she delights in the darkness and complexity of Shakespeare's vision. In selecting All's Well, she has lighted upon one of his most obscure plays, and she has chosen to set it in a contemporary military context. What the tourists will make of it is anyone's guess.

In the flesh, Helena Kaut-Howson is five-feet-not-a-lot of Middle European enthusiasm. She came to England as an actress in the mid-Sixties, having been thrown out of Poland for marrying the English son of a Nato admiral, but she hasn't lost the accent. And, then, there's the curious way she injects the odd unidiomatic phrase into her long staccato sentences, a rogue "yet" in place of a "still", or a gratuitous "indeed".

Today, arriving hot-foot from the rehearsal tent, she's wondering about a new addition to her vocabulary. "I have just come across this phrase 'spin doctors'. Who are these spin doctors? They are mysterious people behind who manipulate, I think."

Her Polishness - or at least the fact that she wasn't English - undoubtedly helped her during her immensely successful, if all too brief, reign at the Theatr Clwyd in Mold, North Wales, where, before the management shabbily got rid of her in 1995, she had established a rare reputation for artistic excellence. Sometimes Kaut-Howson's nationality has made itself felt very directly on stage. Her West End transfer of Jane Eyre, for example, juxtaposed the orphanage at Lowood with the Warsaw ghetto. But mostly her upbringing (she was born in Lvov during the Second World War) has informed her work in a more subtle way. "I always see the human situation within the larger context of history or social upheaval," she says. "I never see the life of the individual as abstracted from the historical context."

The death of her father, a Jewish tailor who was murdered by the Nazis, taught her that. Her Marxist mother ("She was a Mother Courage figure") reinforced this lesson time and time again. In contrast to the Poles, "I think the English are very Edwardian. It's in their person old and young. Everyone treasures their beautiful best tea-set. Those values have not been blown to smithereens by the war or the revolution."

If, culturally speaking, Shakespeare is Britain's beautiful best tea- set, then Kaut-Howson hasn't been afraid of breaking a cup or two. Her recent King Lear (which is revived at the Young Vic later this month) cast the actress Kathryn Hunter as Lear and framed the action within a nursing home for the elderly. "For that, a lot of critics slapped me on the knuckles." Was that fair? "They're entitled to their opinion. I think the English are rightly very protective about their masterpieces of literature. I don't feel in any way that I've been messing about with King Lear, but I can see how protective they may feel, because when I think about a great Polish classic..."

Not that All's Well is exactly a great English classic. Indeed, the British theatre seems to have ignored this tragicomedy like you might choose to ignore an embarrassing, scatter-brained aunt. Peter Hall and Trevor Nunn (who re-located the action to the Crimean War) have both had a crack, and still the play hasn't found a niche in the repertoire. The Open Air Theatre has never before staged it in its 65-year history.

Its obscurity alone makes All's Well a daring choice for a theatre run on a tiny subsidy - just pounds 10,000 from Westminster Council. And this is in a year when the Open Air faces new competition for the tourist pound from the newly opened Globe (see review below). A German tourist, or the kind of casual theatregoer for whom the play is secondary to the picnic, might be expected to know something about The Dream. Only for visiting academics is All's Well likely to ring any bells.

"I'm not doing it traditionally, mainly because I'm not quite sure what the tradition is," says Kaut-Howson. For her, the play exercises a perennial fascination (this will be the third time she has directed it), although the words she uses to describe it sound like a commercially-minded theatre manager's worst nightmare: "It is a complex play, not immediately understandable. Between the main characters, there are puzzling and slightly ambiguous and controversial relationships."

The dying king of France is saved by Helena, a physician's daughter, and as her reward she is allowed to wed the seemingly gallant young Bertram. Bertram, who is in fact a callous rat, reluctantly accedes to the king's wishes. But, encouraged by the braggart Parolles (played by Nigel Planer in this production as a stand-up comedian), he runs away to fight in Italy without consummating the marriage. From there, he writes to tell her that until she is pregnant by him and has in her possession the ring on his finger - "which never shall come off" - she may not call him her husband. Instead of giving up at this point, Helena travels to Italy on a pilgrimage, tricks Bertram into having sex with her under the pretext that she is another woman, and takes the ring.

"It is difficult," Kaut-Howson admits yet again (if Ian Talbot is eavesdropping, his hair is probably turning grey by now). "Victorian audiences - who formed the basis of our tradition of what is and is not enjoyable in Shakespeare - found it hard to put up with the unsympathetic central character and the central premise of the plot. It is also very difficult" - that word, again - "to believe in the happy ending." What Kaut-Howson says she finds so compelling about All's Well is "that curious meeting between the fairy- tale and the very caustically, ironically, realistically perceived picture of sexual and other relations in society".

How well she'll be able to convey this is open to debate. Before any director working at the Open Air Theatre can even begin to think about nuance, there are immense practical problems to be overcome: the cavernous stage, wind-threatened acoustics, ridiculously short rehearsal periods and having to share one lighting set-up between two productions (the lights can't be re-focused in daylight hours, and the theatre can't afford the overtime payments needed to re-focus them at night). The size of the auditorium simply does not allow for intimate tete-a-tetes, and for a director who has done much of her finest work in tight studio spaces that takes some getting used to.

But, she adds, her china-doll features lighting up, the outdoor setting does allow her to do justice to the many scenes set in the "war zone". No more little explosions played for jokes: a big arena means big bangs, a full armoury of modern weaponry, and the chance to re-create something of how it feels to live under the constant threat of war. This, she says, she discovered when she witnessed Israel's Yom Kippur war at first hand in 1973.

Even here, where many directors would just sit back and revel in the pyrotechnics, Kaut-Howson is trying to say something about individuals who have become unwittingly enmeshed in history.

"Some people will hate my production, I am sure," she concedes, but she's offering no apologies. "I found at Clwyd that you don't have to speak down to audiences who are perhaps not sophisticated or highbrow. If you are not just being flashy and pretentious but are genuinely fascinated by something, they go along with you. I love that kind of audience. I think it is the proper kind of audience. They love being gobsmacked." Pronounced with that Polish purr, being "gobsmacked" sounds like the most exalted and exotic state imaginable.

'All's Well That Ends Well' is in rep at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, London NW1 (0171-486 2431) from tomorrow. 'King Lear' is at the Young Vic, London SE1 (0171-928 6363) from 25 June